If rugby is to grow, it needs new, younger fans. But how do the sport’s efforts to win over the kids compare to competitors in the global marketplace? And is rugby doing enough for existing fans?

Rugby’s Fight For Gen Z

BACK IN September 2020, Mark Cuban, the billionaire businessman and owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, tweeted out a piece from the American outlet Morning Consult, simply dubbing it: “The future of sports media in one article.”

The article, called The Sports Industry’s Gen Z Problem, foretold of difficulties on the horizon for US sports because far fewer from Generation Z – a term loosely bracketing those born from the mid-90s to the early 2010s – identified as sports fans, compared with millennials and older adults. Furthermore, their polling showed “Gen Zers are half as likely as millennials to watch live sports regularly and twice as likely to never watch”.

Rounding into 2021, US sports noticed. Here in Europe, by early 2021 a pandemic-hit sports media landscape was taking stock. As the Financial Times hosted their Business of Football summit in February, talk turned to shrinking broadcast deals. Andrew Georgiou, president of Eurosport, spoke for more than just soccer as he proclaimed: “The underlying demand of the consumer is something that everyone needs to be worried about, not just the competition between the broadcasters.” That is, demand amongst kids.

If no sport is an island, rugby must be vigilant. At clubs across the land you will hear tales of young rugby talents drifting away, but what about those who never loved the sport in the first place? Other business-savvy sports are talking about it.

The Washington Post recently ran a piece entitled Sport has a Gen Z problem. The pandemic may accelerate it. Quoted in it was Tim Ellis, the NFL’s chief marketing officer, who said: “There’s no strategy for bringing in a 35-year-old fan for the first time. You have to make them a fan by the time they are 18 or you’ll lose them forever.”

Rugby must win new, younger fans too. But before tackling teenagers, the sport must recognise the battleground…

Rugby's Fight For Gen Z

Graphic of a rugby pitch as a smartphone (Getty Images)


“We’ve not changed since the way the sport started marketing itself back in the 1990s,” says Ged Colleypriest of Underdog Sports Marketing. Growing disgruntled with the same-old rugby approach, he set up his own agency.

“Take a look at any of the Gallagher Premiership or Pro14 jerseys. They are covered in logos. And the reason is because there is not the interest to charge a huge sum of money to one sponsor. So you’re constantly having to take on more sponsors for less and less money.

“But the reality is there is a whole digital world where you’ve got people spending time. That’s where the younger audiences are.”

It is fine saying the answer is right there, on the internet, but leveraging what you have is the real quiz.

Sean Verity has worked throughout rugby, with the Premiership and World Rugby. Co-founder of Antourage, tech that enables sports bodies to build a community on their own platforms, he sees some big failings in return on investment.

He says: “The technology we use measures engagement on social media over a six- to 12-month period. And typically the engagement rates on Instagram will be below 2%. On Facebook they’re usually below 0.2%, maybe 0.1%. Twitter is maybe 0.02%.

“If you engage one in every 1,000 or one in every 10,000 fans, then the reality is you don’t have a connection with your fans”

“And it’s easy just to think of those as numbers but in a business context you are using social platforms to maintain a relationship with your fans, customers, and ultimately your revenue. In context, if you subsequently engage with one in every 1,000 or one in every 10,000 fans, then the reality is you don’t have a connection with your fans – you don’t have a connection with your customers.”

The age of saying ‘we have X number of followers on social!’ and nothing else must be over, particularly as sponsors yearn for deeper intelligence. And organisations using, say, ‘views’ across all their social platforms as their key metric for success is modern folly (a ‘view’ on Facebook and Instagram is watching three seconds of video, on Twitter it’s two, on TikTok it is one. They are not views at all, really, but impressions). You can target set viewer numbers, and Facebook and Twitter will help you do this, but they can just as quickly throw another video at punters from some totally different area of interest. Where is your ROI?

Rugby's Fight For Gen Z

Louis Rees-Zammit is a hit on TikTok (Getty Images)

“I think we can always do better in that space,” says Marissa Pace, the Chief Marketing Officer at World Rugby, when asked if existing rugby fans were being leveraged well enough. “We saw this in Japan so beautifully at the World Cup, where the existing fanbase sort of merged with a new fan base.

“I think there is a lot more we can do to bring old fans into the fold. But as a sport we’re probably not unified enough – we’re very fragmented. Between Six Nations, the Lions, World Rugby tournaments and everything in the southern hemisphere, it’s just so fragmented and actually our job is to promote rugby. If we’ve got people in any channel, any swim lane, then that’s the end objective. So that’s where new audiences come in. I always tell people, my job is to make rugby mainstream.”

As part of a new strategic plan, World Rugby want audience engagement. Data aggregation is key too, so they can build accurate profiles of who rugby’s fans actually are. The trick is successfully drawing those captured into playing or purchasing tickets and merchandise.

Having expanded their marketing department two years ago, Pace says World Rugby’s first step is appealing to existing fans, then bringing newbies in.

“We’re now really bringing focus to key players and targeting the way that we present that to Gen Z, so that they can engage with it. Without heroes, they won’t care about what they’re watching.

“So we need to start building up some of the players so that they feel more personal, more accessible. And the good thing about rugby is it’s not like Formula One, it’s not like the NFL. They’re not inaccessible at the moment and they are very willing. So the first step of the ladder is to get people familiar with who the stars are. Especially in something like the Sevens Series, where some of these athletes, both men and women, are superheroes really.”

World Rugby are looking at the format in sevens, Pace says. Does it best present the sport, with a lightning-fast product stretched out over long days? In all cases, she says, the body will try to preserve “the spirit of rugby”, but making the game at all levels easier and quicker to ‘get’ will be vital going forward.

According to Pace, World Rugby would like to see a spirit of sharing among major competitions for footage, and then building out a syndication platform for highlights and analysis, but video rights are tricky to navigate. And looking to other sports, there could be big wins. Fantasy rugby is a huge one. Pace sees the journey through an NFL game (the “end-to-end experience”) from pre-game to fantasy to Red Zone and beyond, and says: “That’s where we need to get to. We’re on our way.”

But who are the other combatants?


The opportunity in eSports is exciting. And according to Oliver Weingarten, the founder and CEO of LDN UTD eSports and formerly a lawyer with the Premier League and the Formula One Teams Association: “You look at the size of what the industry looks like now and the numbers are staggering.

“I often get asked if eSports is in a bubble but we’re certainly not. Fortnite has got 250 million gamers, and Twitch a few years ago had 355 billion (minutes of) views and project that they’re going to double that by the end of 2022. The revenues continue to go up.

Rugby Gen Z

FIFA is not as popular as other eSports (Getty Images)

“And that’s why I think you’re finding that the traditional sports bodies, when they’re pitching to brands, find they are pitching against eSports organisations as well. Everyone is fighting over the same pounds or dollars now.”

The image of eSports is changing as organisations are on the march. And the fanbase is chattering while dipping in and out. Take WhatsApp away, can you have the same experience watching an 80-minute match as you would with headset-wearing gamers? Gen Z consumes content differently.

Weingarten is a fan of F1 but questions if young gamers really want to jump in and do laps for two hours. For some, FIFA is not regarded as one of the top eSports compared to, say, League of Legends. As Weingarten adds, the smart play by bodies like Man City was to move into League of Legends and build brand recognition – not rely solely on FIFA. But is anyone in rugby on this now?

“The best example of that is Munster Rugby with League of Legends,” says Weingarten. “There’s no obvious place for them to engage from an eSports perspective, there isn’t a rugby game out there. So they’ve looked at brand recognition and now Munster (after recent image issues aligning with another organisation) are getting all this exposure to a new demographic, and doing things the right way.”

Square pegs hate round holes, and young people like what they like.


The NFL were willing to try something. Think less primetime, more slime time.

At the start of the year, US broadcaster CBS reached their highest audience in seven years for an NFL Wild Card game. Some 30.6m viewers tuned in to see the Chicago Bears-New Orleans Saints bout. The show wasn’t tailored for legacy fans.

As a Nickelodeon-run broadcast, it was awash with bright colours. Graphics of SpongeBob SquarePants sat between the posts. Clips of popular child stars flickered between plays, explaining laws. And when there was a touchdown, computer-generated slime cannons popped out of the ground to douse the field in pretend goo.

Rugby Gen Z

Nickelodeon x NFL (image courtesy of ViacomCBS)

Before the match, Brian Robbins, President of ViacomCBS Kids & Family Entertainment, said “Nick’s sensibility of surprise and fun at almost every turn” should shine through. Outside of the States, the partnership was hailed.

So what was the intention with this? As an NFL spokesperson tells Rugby World: “We saw it as a way to draw in new viewers and hopefully future fans. We saw it as a conversation starter for viewers and a way to present a game in a completely different way.

“We are very open to (ripping up traditional approaches to broadcasts) and this is certainly not the first time we have experimented in this area.

Related: How far off is a top rugby documentary series on major streaming platforms?

“Reaching the next generation of fans is important to the NFL, which is why there is so much attention on a younger audience. The Nickelodeon example is an obvious recent one but our marketing department has been focused on doing many integrations into areas that younger fans are interested in – namely music, fashion and gaming. An example is the work we have done with the popular game Fortnite.”

Why is this interesting? If you look for comparable work in rugby from prestige broadcasters, it can be slim on the ground. While CBBC has done content from Wimbledon in recent years, fronted by their Hacker T Dog character, when asked if they would consider the same for the Six Nations, a spokesperson told Rugby World that the BBC had “no immediate plans to do children-facing video content in the way Nickelodeon have just done with the NFL”.

The tools may well be there. It’s about actively searching for the best use. If Louis Rees-Zammit blowing up on TikTok opens teens to rugby fandom, excellent.

But there must be many other avenues explored. Bipartisanship across all of rugby could well be the best weapon.

This feature first appeared in Rugby World in March.

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